Shakespeare’s favourite classical poet, Ovid, inspired him with myth, magic and metamorphosis. Now the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is seeking to reignite interest in the Roman poet amid concerns that directors are tempted to cut classical allusions from the Bard’s plays because they assume audiences will not understand them.
Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director, is staging a celebration of the author of the Metamorphoses, the epic masterpiece on the themes of transformation and passion, which features Daphne and Apollo, Daedalus and Icarus among its mythological stories.
The problem is that, while Shakespeare would have been able to read the work in the original Latin at school, young people today are no longer so well versed in the classics. Doran said: “Working with various directors who come in and start cutting the plays – as we always do cut Shakespeare’s plays – I noticed that what was getting cut was the classical allusions.”
There was an assumption, he said, that “nobody will understand what this means and won’t know who these characters are”. He feared that if something was “no longer relevant or resonant for a young audience”, directors would be tempted increasingly to delete it.
Doran said: “What happens when you get to Proserpina, Niobe or Phaeton – characters that are crucial to the very particular moments in Shakespeare’s characters’ lives? They reference them.
“These stories should be there in the curriculum at an early stage. They are not just crucial to your understanding of Shakespeare. Whether it’s Renaissance art, whether it’s understanding human nature, they’re so important … There are Ovid references in almost every play. Metamorphoses is such a great book because it just probes our humanity. It shows people in extremes.”
Two thousand years after Ovid’s death in AD17, the RSC is planning a series of events this autumn, including stagings, talks and readings. The actors Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale have expressed interest in taking part.
The company is also reaching out to the next generation by taking adaptations of Ovid stories into primary schools. They include Pyramus and Thisbe, which was parodied by Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Doran wants to inspire children with Ovid “before they hit cynical, before they’re intimidated”, just as the RSC does with Shakespeare in its education programmes.
Such was the Roman poet’s influence that in 1598 the writer Francis Meres observed: “The witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare.”
In a short film produced to launch the programme, Doran says that apart from staging all of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, they want to retell Ovid’s tales “in innovative and inspiring new ways”.
He points out that no other Greek or Roman classic has influenced European art, including Shakespeare, more than Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “Full of myths both familiar and forgotten, Ovid’s great work tells of love, violence and transformation.
“Some would say that, long before Shakespeare, the Metamorphoses was the most influential book in the Renaissance, inspiring great artists like Titian. He went on to inspire artists as diverse as James Joyce and Bob Dylan.
“Are we likely to forget his stories that so inspired Shakespeare? Who was Proserpina? Or Phaeton? Or Niobe? What happened to Daedalus and Icarus? Why was Philomela turned into a nightingale, or Actaeon into a stag?”
Doran argues, for example, that Ovid is crucial to the plot in Titus Andronicus. “Lavinia reveals that she has been raped by grabbing her nephew’s book of the Metamorphoses and pointing to the rape of Philomela by Tereus.”
Echoes of Ovid occur repeatedly in Shakespeare’s writings, including Venus and Adonis and The Tempest.